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Posts Tagged ‘religion’

14 JANUARY, 2015

A Graphic Cosmogony: Illustrators Imagine the Origin of the Universe

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From the lyrical to the ludicrous, uncommon takes on how our world came to be.

Humanity’s history of mapping the cosmos is as long as our margin of error in explaining the universe is wide. We have been wrong about so much so often and so staunchly stubborn in admitting our errors. But we have also produced works of immeasurable beauty in giving form to our awe, however rooted in illusion, and continue to dwell in awe as we struggle to reconcile conflicting explanations and pursue the truth of our origins.

In A Graphic Cosmogony (public library), twenty-four of today’s most celebrated illustrators and graphic artists each take seven pages to tell their version of the story of the universe’s origin and how our world came to be. There are unusual takes on traditional creation myths like The Book of Genesis (who needs Adam’s biologically suspect rib when there is Eve’s true-to-life vagina?), imaginative homages to evolution, gorgeous interpretations of Japanese folktales, and all kinds of fanciful alternative mythologies that fuse the playful with the profound.

In the introduction, Paul Gravett considers why the medium of comics lends itself to the story of creation so aptly:

There is something instinctual, almost primal about making and reading/viewing comics, especially highly graphic ones with few or no words. They spark a provocative clarity that taps into our inner caveman’s brain, our pre-literate child-self deciphering to make sense of the strange wonders of the everyday. And for all our scientific advances, here we are now, only a mere decade into this second millennium, and still finding fascination in the show-and-tell choreographies of pictures, lettering, balloons, captions and panels.

Rob Hunter: Luna

Rob Hunter: Luna

Rob Hunter: Luna

Rob Hunter: Luna

Brecht Vandenbroucke: Genesis

Brecht Vandenbroucke: Genesis

Jon McNaught: Pilgrims

Ben Newman: All That Dreams Matters

Ben Newman: All That Dreams Matters

Ben Newman: All That Dreams Matters

Clayton Junior: Ara Poty

Luc Melanson: Deus Magicus

Yeji Yun: Solitude

A Graphic Cosmogony, far more delightful in its sequential and tactile totality, comes from British independent press Nobrow, who have previously given us such gems as a graphic biography of Freud and an illustrated tour of how the brain works. Complement it with French graphic artist Blexbolex’s bewitching Ballad, a different kind of lyrical graphic mythology as old as the world, and this evolution coloring book.

Illustrations courtesy of Nobrow

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09 JANUARY, 2015

Einstein’s God: Krista Tippett and Theoretical Cosmologist Janna Levin on Free Will, Science, and the Human Spirit

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“How we ask our questions affects the answers we arrive at… Science and religion… ask different kinds of questions altogether, probing and illuminating in ways neither could alone.”

Seven decades after a little girl asked Einstein whether scientists pray, Peabody Award-winning journalist Krista Tippett began interviewing some of the world’s most remarkable scientists, philosophers, and theologians about the relationship between science and spirituality in her superb public radio program On Being — the same trove of wisdom that gave us Sherwin Nuland on what everybody needs and Joanna Macy on how Rilke can help us live more fully. Tippett, who was awarded the National Humanities Medal for her ennobling work, collected the best of these dialogues in Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit (public library) — an immeasurably rewarding compendium featuring such contemporary luminaries as Parker Palmer, Freeman Dyson, Andrew Solomon, and Sherwin Nuland.

Lamenting that we have “lost a robust vocabulary for spiritual ethics and theological thinking” in the “polite, erudite, public-radio-loving circles” of public life, Tippett writes in the introduction:

The science-religion “debate” is unwinnable, and it has led us astray. To insist that science and religion speak the same language, or draw the same conclusions, is to miss the point of both of these pursuits of cohesive knowledge and underlying truth. To create a competition between them, in terms of relevance or rightness, is self-defeating. Both science and religion are set to animate the twenty-first century with new vigor. This will happen whether their practitioners are in dialogue or not. But the dialogue that is possible — and that has developed organically, below the journalistic and political radar — is mutually illuminating and lush with promise.

Illustration from Thomas Wright’s visionary 1750 treatise 'An Original Theory,' found in Michael Benson's book 'Cosmigraphics'—a visual history of understanding the universe. Click image for more.

Tippett invokes her grandfather, a “preacher of hellfire and brimstone” with a “large, unexcavated mind that frightened him” and “sharp wit, a searching attentiveness, a mysterious ability to perform mathematical feats in his head”:

People like him became the object of erudite parody, straw men easily blown down by prophets of reason. His kind of religiosity was small-minded at best, delusional at worst, and, most damnably, the enemy of science.

The mundane truth is this: my grandfather did not know enough about science to be against it. I summon his memory by way of tracing, for myself, why I’ve found my conversations with scientists to be so profoundly sustaining. It is not just that they are intellectually and spiritually evocative beyond compare. Cumulatively they dispel the myth of the clash of civilizations between science and religion, indeed between spirit and reason, that we’ve accepted as the backdrop for so many tensions of the modern West.

[…]

How we ask our questions affects the answers we arrive at. Light appears as a wave if you ask it “a wavelike question” and it appears as a particle if you ask it “a particle-like question.” This is a template for understanding how contradictory explanations of reality can simultaneously be true.

And it’s not so much true, as our cultural debates presume, that science and religion reach contradictory answers to the same particular questions of human life. Far more often, they simply ask different kinds of questions altogether, probing and illuminating in ways neither could alone.

Hardly anything illustrates this notion more crisply than a line from the bewitching novel A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines“To see some truths you must stand outside and look in.” — by astrophysicist and theoretical cosmologist Janna Levin, one of Tippett’s interviewees, who studies the shape and finitude of the universe. In her conversation with Tippett, Levin reflects on the relationship between mathematics and truth, central to both her novel — which explores the parallels between the extraordinary minds of computing pioneer Alan Turing and mathematician Kurt Gödel — and her life:

I would absolutely say I am also besotted with mathematics. I don’t worry about what’s real and not real in the way that maybe Gödel did. I think what Turing did, which was so beautiful, was to have a very practical approach. He believed that life was, in a way, simple. You could relate to mathematics in a concrete and practical way. It wasn’t about surreal, abstract theories. And that’s why Turing is the one who invents the computer, because he thinks so practically. He can imagine a machine that adds and subtracts, a machine that performs the mathematical operations that the mind performs. The modern computers that we have now are these very practical machines that are built on those ideas. So I would say that like Turing, I am absolutely struck with the power of mathematics, and that’s why I’m a theoretical physicist… I love that we can all share the mathematical answers. It’s not about me trying to convince you of what I believe or of my perspective or of my assumptions. We can all agree that one plus one is two, and we can all make calculations that come out to be the same, whether you’re from India or Pakistan or Oklahoma, we all have that in common. There’s something about that that’s deeply moving to me and that makes mathematics pure and special. And yet I’m able to have a more practical attitude about it, which is that, well, we can build machines this way. There is a physical reality that we can relate to using mathematics.

A 1573 painting by Portuguese artist, historian, and philosopher Francisco de Holanda, a student of Michelangelo's, from Michael Benson's book 'Cosmigraphics'—a visual history of understanding the universe. Click image for more.

When Tippett stretches this into the difficult question of whether “the fact that one plus one equals two [has] anything to do with God,” Levin — a self-described atheist — echoes Tolstoy’s quest for meaning and answers with remarkable poetry and poise:

If I were to ever lean towards spiritual thinking or religious thinking, it would be in that way. It would be, why is it that there is this abstract mathematics that guides the universe? The universe is remarkable because we can understand it. That’s what’s remarkable. All the other things are remarkable, too. It’s really, really astounding that these little creatures on this little planet that seem totally insignificant in the middle of nowhere can look back over the fourteen-billion-year history of the universe and understand so much and in such a short time.

So that is where I would get a sense, again, of meaning and of purpose and of beauty and of being integrated with the universe so that it doesn’t feel hopeless and meaningless. Now, I don’t personally invoke a God to do that, but I can’t say that mathematics would disprove the existence of God either. It’s just one of those things where over and over again, you come to that point where some people will make that leap and say, “I believe that God initiated this and then stepped away, and the rest was this beautiful mathematical unfolding.” And others will say, “Well, as far back as it goes, there seem to be these mathematical structures. And I don’t feel the need to conjure up any other entity.” And I fall into that camp, and without feeling despair or dissatisfaction.

The emboldening poetics of Levin’s orientation to the universe and its meaning — at the heart of which is the same inquiry Alan Watts tussled with in probing what reality is — comes alive in this passage from her novel:

In the park, over the low wall, there are two girls playing in the grass. Giants looming over their toys, monstrously out of proportion. They’re holding hands and spinning, leaning farther and farther back until their fingers rope together, chubby flesh and bone enmeshed. What do I see? Angular momentum around their center. A principle of physics in their motion. A girlish memory of grass-stained knees.

I keep walking and recede from the girls’ easy confidence in the world’s mechanisms. I believe they exist, even if my knowledge of them can only be imperfect, a crude sketch of their billions of vibrating atoms. I believe this to be true… I am on an orbit through the universe that crosses the paths of some girls, a teenager, a dog, an old woman…

I could have written this book entirely differently, but then again, maybe this book is the only way it could be, and these are the only choices I could have made. This is me, an unreal composite, maybe part liar, maybe not free.

Another 16th-century painting by Francisco de Holanda from 'Cosmigraphics.'Click image for more.

Therein lies the obvious question — a question raised memorably and somewhat controversially by C.S. Lewis — of free will in a universe of fixed laws. Levin tells Tippett:

I think it’s a difficult question to understand what it means to have free will if we are completely determined by the laws of physics, and even if we’re not. Because there are things—for instance, in quantum mechanics, which is the theory of physics on the highest energy scales—which imply that there is some kind of quantum randomness so that we’re not completely determined. But randomness doesn’t really help me either.

[…]

There is no clear way of making sense of an idea of free will in a pinball game of strict determinism or in a game with elements of random chance thrown in. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t a free will. I’ve often said maybe someday we’ll just discover something. I mean, quantum mechanics was a surprise. General relativity was a surprise. The idea of curved space-time. All of these great discoveries were great surprises, and we shouldn’t decide ahead of time what is or isn’t true. So it might be that this convincing feeling I have, that I am executing free will, is actually because I’m observing something that is there. I just can’t understand how it’s there. Or it’s a total illusion. It’s a very, very convincing illusion, but it’s an illusion all the same.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s revelatory work on intuition, exposing the lack of correlation between our confidence in our beliefs and the validity of the evidence behind them — something that often manifests as “the backfire effect” — Levin considers the nature of these convincing illusions to which human nature so easily succumbs:

Our convincing feeling is that time is absolute. Our convincing feeling is that there should be no limit to how fast you can travel. Our convincing feelings are based on our experiences because of the size that we are, literally, the speed at which we move, the fact that we evolved on a planet under a particular star. So our eyes, for instance, are at peak in their perception of yellow, which is the wave band the sun peaks at. It’s not an accident that our perceptions and our physical environment are connected. We’re limited, also, by that. That makes our intuitions excellent for ordinary things, for ordinary life. That’s how our brains evolved and our perceptions evolved, to respond to things like the Sun and the Earth and these scales. And if we were quantum particles, we would think quantum mechanics were totally intuitive. Things fluctuating in and out of existence, or not being certain of whether they’re particles or waves — these kinds of strange things that come out of quantum theory — would seem absolutely natural…

Our intuitions are based on our minds, our minds are based on our neural structures, our neural structures evolved on a planet, under a sun, with very specific conditions. We reflect the physical world that we evolved from. It’s not a miracle.

And yet, crucially, the lack of evidence for free will is by no means a license to abdicate personal responsibility in how we move through the world:

If I conclude that there is no free will, it doesn’t mean that I should go run amok in the streets. I’m no more free to make that choice than I am to make any other choice. There’s a practical notion of responsibility or civic free will that we uphold when we prosecute somebody, when we hold juries or when we pursue justice that I completely think is a practical notion that we should continue to pursue. It’s not like I can choose to be irresponsible or responsible because I’m confused about free will.

Six decades earlier, and long before the dawn of modern astrophysics, Anaïs Nin made a humanistic case for the same.

Einstein’s God is a spectacular read in its entirety, as is Levin’s novel. For more perspectives on the relationship between science and spirituality, step into the cultural time machine with Carl Sagan on science and religion, Flannery O’Connor on dogma, belief, and the difference between religion and faith, Alan Lightman on science and spirituality, Ada Lovelace on the interconnectedness of everything, Jane Goodall on science and spirit, and Sam Harris on spirituality without religion.

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08 JANUARY, 2015

Compassion and the Real Meaning of the Golden Rule

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“Compassion… asks us to look into our own hearts, discover what gives us pain, and then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else.”

“Have compassion for everyone you meet,” Lucinda Williams sings, for “you do not know what wars are going on down there, where the spirit meets the bone.” This ode to what should be our baseline behavior to one another echoes like a great secular psalm in the cathedral of the human experience — a sorely needed one, and yet one which humanity has a long history of tuning out, to its own detriment.

Karen Armstrong joined a convent at the age of seventeen, but soon found herself both miserable and, per her own admission, a “failure” as a nun. Seven years later, she left and decided to become a secular scholar, cutting off all ties to religion and setting out to study English Literature in Oxford. But what she learned about instead — and what she dedicated the next four decades of her life to — was compassion. Although it might not seem this way — especially amid today’s gruesome distortions of spiritual traditions, which are hardly new — Armstrong was startled to find, through her secular back door, that compassion was the common core of all religions. She became a historian of religion, received the prestigious $100,000 TED Prize in 2008 for her work promoting interfaith dialogue, and founded the Charter for Compassion, a multilingual effort to transmute the world’s religions into a force of global harmony rather than discord, enlisting leading thinkers from a wide range of religious and moral traditions.

Karen Armstrong (Photograph: Paul Vicente)

Armstrong encapsulates a lifetime of studying and championing this height of the human spirit in the wonderfully wise, urgently necessary book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (public library). She writes:

One of the chief tasks of our time must surely be to build a global community in which all peoples can live together in mutual respect; yet religion, which should be making a major contribution, is seen as part of the problem. All faiths insist that compassion is the test of true spirituality and that it brings us into relation with the transcendence we call God, Brahman, Nirvana, or Dao. Each has formulated its own version of what is sometimes called the Golden Rule, “Do not treat others as you would not like them to treat you,” or in its positive form, “Always treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself.” Further, they all insist that you cannot confine your benevolence to your own group; you must have concern for everybody — even your enemies.

Illustration from 'Fox's Garden' by Princesse Camcam, a tender wordless fable about compassion to those kicked away. Click image for more.

Armstrong counters the laziness of the commonly held opinion that religion is the cause of all major wars in history:

In fact, the causes of conflict are usually greed, envy, and ambition, but in an effort to sanitize them, these self-serving emotions have often been cloaked in religious rhetoric. There has been much flagrant abuse of religion in recent years. Terrorists have used their faith to justify atrocities that violate its most sacred values. In the Roman Catholic Church, popes and bishops have ignored the suffering of countless women and children by turning a blind eye to the sexual abuse committed by their priests. Some religious leaders seem to behave like secular politicians, singing the praises of their own denomination and decrying their rivals with scant regard for charity… Disputes that were secular in origin, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, have been allowed to fester and become “holy,” and once they have been sacralized, positions tend to harden and become resistant to pragmatic solutions. And yet at the same time we are bound together more closely than ever before through the electronic media… In a world in which small groups will increasingly have powers of destruction hitherto confined to the nation-state, it has become imperative to apply the Golden Rule globally, ensuring that all peoples are treated as we would wish to be treated ourselves. If our religious and ethical traditions fail to address this challenge, they will fail the test of our time.

Armstrong quotes the final version of the Charter for Compassion, which was launched in November of 2009 and came to embody this spirit by offering an antidote to the voices of extremism, intolerance, and hatred:

The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honor the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.

It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and empathically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others — even our enemies — is a denial of our common humanity.

[…]

We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous and dynamic force in our polarized world. Rooted in a principled determination to transcend selfishness, compassion can break down political, dogmatic, ideological and religious boundaries. Born of our deep interdependence, compassion is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity.

Illustration by Marianne Dubuc from 'The Lion and the Bird,' one of the best children's books of 2014. Click image to see more.

But compassion can’t be enacted without first grasping its essence in a way that reclaims it from the realm of abstraction and makes it an actionable quality. Armstrong offers a necessary definition:

Compassion is aptly summed up in the Golden Rule, which asks us to look into our own hearts, discover what gives us pain, and then refuse, under any circumstance whatsoever, to inflict that pain on anybody else. Compassion can be defined, therefore, as an attitude of principled, consistent altruism.

In fact, the first person to formulate the Golden Rule predated the founding figures of Christianity and Islam by five centuries and a millennium, respectively — when asked which of his teachings his disciples should practice most tenaciously, “all day and every day,” the Chinese sage Confucius (551–479 BCE) pointed to the concept of shu, commonly translated as “consideration,” which he explained as striving “never to do to others what you would not like them to do to you.” Armstrong clarifies:

A better translation of shu is “likening to oneself”; people should not put themselves in a special, privileged category but relate their own experience to that of others “all day and every day.” Confucius called this ideal ren, a word that originally meant “noble” or “worthy” but that by his time simply meant “human.” Some scholars have argued that its root meaning was “softness,” “pliability.” But Confucius always refused to define ren, because, he said, it did not adequately correspond to any of the familiar categories of his day. It could be understood only by somebody who practiced it perfectly and was inconceivable to anybody who did not. A person who behaved with ren “all day and every day” would become a junzi, a “mature human being.”

Compassion, thus, is a matter of orienting oneself toward the rest of humanity, implicitly requiring a transcendence of self-interest and egotism. Centuries later, the three major monotheistic religions would arrive at strikingly similar conclusions — but the compassionate disposition is indiscriminately ennobling, whether its manifestations come from the secular world or the religious, and something we have historically admired in human beings from all backgrounds. Armstrong illustrates this with some familiar examples:

When we encounter a truly compassionate man or woman we feel enhanced. The names of the Quaker prison reformer Elizabeth Fry (1780–1845), Florence Nightingale (1820–1910), the hospital reformer, and Dorothy Day (1897–1980), founder of the Catholic Worker movement, have all become bywords for heroic philanthropy. Despite the fact that they were women in an aggressively male society, all three succeeded in making the compassionate ideal a practical, effective, and enduring force in a world that was in danger of forgetting it. The immense public veneration of Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948), Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968), Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama shows that people are hungry for a more compassionate and principled form of leadership… But in many ways compassion is alien to our modern way of life. The capitalist economy is intensely competitive and individualistic, and goes out of its way to encourage us to put ourselves first.

Illustration by Marla Frazee from 'The Farmer and the Clown,' a warm wordless story about an unlikely friendship and how we ennoble each other with compassion. Click image to see more.

But Armstrong laments — and I wistfully agree — that compassion has slipped woefully low in our hierarchy of cultural priorities. Even those of us most resolutely resistant to succumbing to the epidemic of cynicism can’t help but notice the systematic eradication of compassion from even our small everyday gestures to one another and our most basic forms of public discourse. Recently, for instance, when a certain prominent young entrepreneur announced his resolution to read a book every two weeks in the new year, a headline cropped up on the internet instantly denouncing his aspiration as a “shameless act of propaganda.” How did cynicism gobble us up so completely as to automatically dismiss even the possibility of earnestness? What failure of compassion has led us this far astray from even holding up a mirror to one another’s highest selves and not our basest, or even giving each other the benefit of the doubt?

And yet I continue to side with E.B. White’s beautiful case for keeping faith in the human spirit, for “as long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate.” This is what renders the entirety of Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, in which she goes on to outline how to cultivate this vital and vitalizing virtue in our everyday secular lives, so very emboldening and so very necessary.

Complement it with David DeSteno on the psychology of compassion, artist Ann Truitt on what it means to extend it to others, and Mark Twain on how he learned about it from his mother.

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29 DECEMBER, 2014

Neil deGrasse Tyson Selects the Eight Books Every Intelligent Person on the Planet Should Read

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How to “glean profound insight into most of what has driven the history of the western world.”

In December of 2011, Neil deGrasse Tysonchampion of science, celebrator of the cosmic perspective, master of the soundbite — participated in Reddit’s Ask Me Anything series of public questions and answers. One reader posed the following question: “Which books should be read by every single intelligent person on the planet?” Adding to history’s notable reading lists — including those by Leo Tolstoy, Alan Turing, Brian Eno, David Bowie, Stewart Brand, and Carl Sagan — Tyson offers the following eight essentials, each followed by a short, and sometimes wry, statement about “how the book’s content influenced the behavior of people who shaped the western world”:

  1. The Bible (public library; free ebook), to learn that it’s easier to be told by others what to think and believe than it is to think for yourself
  2. The System of the World (public library; free ebook) by Isaac Newton, to learn that the universe is a knowable place
  3. On the Origin of Species (public library; free ebook) by Charles Darwin, to learn of our kinship with all other life on Earth
  4. Gulliver’s Travels (public library; free ebook) by Jonathan Swift, to learn, among other satirical lessons, that most of the time humans are Yahoos
  5. The Age of Reason (public library; free ebook) by Thomas Paine, to learn how the power of rational thought is the primary source of freedom in the world
  6. The Wealth of Nations (public library; free ebook) by Adam Smith, to learn that capitalism is an economy of greed, a force of nature unto itself
  7. The Art of War (public library; free ebook) by Sun Tzu, to learn that the act of killing fellow humans can be raised to an art
  8. The Prince (public library; free ebook) by Machiavelli, to learn that people not in power will do all they can to acquire it, and people in power will do all they can to keep it

Tyson adds:

If you read all of the above works you will glean profound insight into most of what has driven the history of the western world.

(What has driven it, evidently, is also the systematic exclusion of the female perspective. The prototypical “intelligent person” would be remiss not to also read, at the very least, Margaret Fuller’s foundational text Woman in the Nineteenth Century, which is even available as a free ebook, and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. But, of course, the question of diversity is an infinite one and any list is bound to be pathologically unrepresentative of all of humanity — a challenge I’ve addressed elsewhere — so Tyson’s selections remain indispensable despite their chromosomal lopsidedness. My hope, meanwhile, is that we’ll begin to see more such reading lists by prominent female scientists, philosophers, artists, or writers of the past and present; to my knowledge, none have been made public as of yet — except perhaps Susan Sontag’s diary, which is essentially a lifelong reading list.)

Complement with Nabokov on the six short stories every writer should read, then revisit Tyson on genius and the most humbling fact about the universe.

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